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WOW designer kicks off Austin conference

Rob Pardo demystifies the Blizzard polish, addresses how a counterintuitive approach to game design is sometimes the best, and explains the secret of a "healthy donut."


AUSTIN, Texas--The Austin Game Conference (AGC) is all about online gaming, and right now, online gaming is all about Blizzard's massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. So it's only fitting that this year's AGC, the fourth annual event and the first to span three days rather than two, would kick off with a keynote speech from World of Warcraft's lead designer, Rob Pardo.

Before a ballroom packed with hundreds of attendees, Pardo detailed the Blizzard design process that birthed hits like Starcraft, Diablo, Warcraft, and, of course, World of Warcraft.

"We have a lot of goofy mantras," Pardo said. "Things like 'purity of purpose,' 'concentrated coolness,' obvious ones like 'easy to learn, difficult to master.' When you have a large studio and a lot of designers, it's kind of important that everyone understands your values and when you're developing that design culture, if you don't have these shared values, it's very hard for all the designers and developers to understand what you're trying to achieve."

The first Blizzard value is a donut, with the inner ring representing the core market for a game and the outer ring being the casual crowd. While Pardo explained that it's important to appeal to both casual and core markets, he noted that as the group of people playing a game grows, the casual market tends to grow much faster than the core segment.

The healthy donut is achieved with decisions guided by a series of mantras, the first of which is "easy to learn, difficult to master."

"The first thing we always do is we design depth first and accessibility later," Pardo said. "And I think this is kind of unintuitive... We try to come up with [answers to] what are the really cool things, the things that are going to attract players to this game and get them to play the game for two to three years? Where's the depth coming from? And then we think about accessibility."

For World of Warcraft, there were four features Pardo said were key to giving the game depth. The team wanted to make the classes as distinct as possible; they then made the game's dungeons specifically to serve the core market and act as a bridge for more casual players to get further into the game. Other features that the team spent time tuning for added depth included player-versus-player action and more interesting raids and end games with encounters "that are much more like something you might see in Zelda."

After focusing on the depth, the team went back and made the game accessible, starting with the user interface. Pardo said the art of designing a good user interface was about what was left out as much as what was included. The team deliberately made some features of the interface a little bit harder to get to in order to keep the basic screen interface simple and accessible.

To further avoid intimidating or frustrating players, Pardo said the team wanted the game to be "soloable to 60," so that players who didn't want to get involved with parties could enjoy the game almost as a single-player affair. The developers also focused on the new player experience, first and foremost ensuring that it isn't overwhelming.

"There were a lot of other games we saw where your newbie experience was trying to find your way out of your starting town, and we wanted to avoid that," Pardo said.

The team's next mantra was "killing with a purpose," an idea that dictated the quest design philosophy.

"With a lot of the other MMOs, you would just go out and the whole reason for playing the game was just to see that little experience bar move," Pardo said, adding, "That's actually really fun gameplay, but it's not particularly accessible to people."

Instead, Pardo said Blizzard tried to give people a reason for the combat, and they used the quests as a way to show the players the game.

"Rather than going and finding the spot in your level range that has the most efficient monsters to kill for the most experience, we would actually get you to kill all the monsters in your level range and give you more experience through quest experience than just killing the monsters themselves," Pardo said. "So in that way you're always moving around the world--you're always seeing a new place, seeing a new monster, experiencing different things with your combat."

As much as it's a good start to have something to offer the core gamers and something to offer the casuals, Pardo said it was also important to turn the latter into the former.

"Once you have all those deep, interesting game features in your game and you've done the accessibility, you need to get people from that newbie experience to the core experience," Pardo said. "It really becomes all about pacing."

Going up to the game's launch, Pardo said some Blizzard staffers were panicking because certain testers were reaching level 60 within a week or so of starting their characters. A few people within the company advocated extending the content so that it would take longer for people to reach the game's upper echelons, but Pardo insisted that they couldn't design the game to cater exclusively to the heaviest users.

Rather than artificially extending character progression, Pardo said Blizzard relied on those players to choose to create other characters in new classes and level them up as well.

"We chose to make each of our classes as cool and different from each other as possible for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost so that players can recognize the classes and so that when you play them it's a new experience," Pardo said.

To direct the design of new classes, the team turned to another mantra, "concentrated coolness." Early in development of World of Warcraft, the thought was that they could carry over some of the basic hero characters from Warcraft 3 and use those as the basis of the MMO's classes. However, in order to keep the classes distinct, fun, and comparatively few in number, Pardo said they took the best parts of each and combined them into World of Warcraft's current lineup of class options. For instance, Pardo said the Mountain King, Blademaster, and Tauren Chieftain from Warcraft 3 were essentially combined into the Warrior class, which was given the thunder clap, critical strike, and shock-wave abilities of its predecessors.

While Pardo explained some of the choices made in the development of World of Warcraft, he didn't necessarily say they were the right ones. In fact, he described development as a series of trade-offs, more shades of gray than black-and-white issues of right and wrong. For instance, he talked about the decision to go with stylized art for the game to keep system requirements manageable. It meant the game would run on more computers and the stylized art style would likely age well, but it also meant the team was prepared for criticism from the press and public for not putting out something with cutting-edge visuals

Another trade-off Pardo mentioned was the decision to limit transportation options in the game. By preventing players from teleporting instantly to wherever their friends were adventuring or wherever their next quest was, the gameworld carries with it a sense of scale. However, it also risks irritating players who don't want to spend their time hoofing it to get where they need to be.

Finally Pardo discussed the famous Blizzard polish and dispelled a misconception about the way it works.

"There's this big assumption with polish that it's something you do at the end, that the reason Blizzard is successful is because we get 6 to 12 months more than everybody else and at the end of that process we just spend a whole lot of time polishing, polishing, polishing," Pardo said. "We do get more time, but that's not where we do all the polish. We do the polish right from the beginning. It's a constant effort. You really have to have a culture of polish. It's something that everyone has to be brought into; it's something you really have to preach."

Pardo said Blizzard emphasizes the polish every step of the way--from design through production and beta testing, the company strives to make everything just right. And while he admitted a lot of the tweaks made are things that would almost never get noticed on their own, the sum of thousands of such tweaks creates the very noticeable polish on the end product.

The final piece of advice Pardo gave to the assembled crowd was, "Don't ship until it's ready."

"I think every game has this, where if you ship before it's ready, you're really going to cripple the chances for the success of that game," Pardo said. "But with massively multiplayer games, the stakes are much higher... People generally don't take a second look at your game. There's been a whole lot of MMO games that shipped early, admittedly so by their companies, and in a lot of those cases, you hear these great stories about how much more fun their game is [now]. Yeah, that's great, but no one actually goes back. If you ship before you're ready, you're going to cripple yourself. You're putting at risk the next five years of your product."

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